Election Coverage 101: Some tips from experts

A panel of political experts and reporters discussed the upcoming election season and the next presidential election and offered advice to young journalists who attended this year’s SEJC conference’s political panel, The Political Beat: Gearing up for the 2014 Elections.

The panel consisted of: Norman Robinson, a former White House correspondent for CBS and the senior anchor for its New Orleans affiliate, WDSU; Pearson Cross, Ph.D., head of the University of Louisiana Lafayette political science department and consultant for KATC-TV3 in Lafayette; and Bernie Pinsonat, director of Southern Media and Opinion Research, a polling and consulting firm used by businesses and politicians.

“Talk about a political dynasty!” Pinsonat exclaimed, when asked about Hillary Clinton’s chances in the next election. “Certainly she’s the Democratic frontrunner, but she carries a lot of baggage.”

Cross stated that Clinton won’t “believe in her own invincibility” this time around and will be less likely to get knocked out by a young upstart, like now-President Barack Obama, who unexpectedly beat her in 2008. Cross also noted that her experience as secretary of state, despite the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, would be an overall positive to her résumé.

“(She) has a kind of political swagger that I think is going to be tough to beat, and she knows it,” agreed Robinson. “She’s well aware of how to handle herself. I would not want to be the person on the other side in a political fight with her.”

The panel discussed another female Democrat facing a fierce standoff with Republican candidates and a dwindling white Democrat support base in Louisiana and the rest of the South.

“(Mary Landrieu, D-La.,) is an incumbent Democratic U.S. senator,” began Pinsonat, discussing the 2014 U.S. Senate elections. “She’s running for re-election. She’s been around in Louisiana for a while. Her name is somewhat of a political dynasty. She’s absolutely one of the most popular elected officials in Louisiana.”

However, Pinsonat said although the Landrieu name carries a lot of weight in Louisiana politics, the senator will face some tough opposition this election from Republicans.

“She has challengers,” he continued. “(U.S. Rep.) Bill Cassidy, (R-La.), from Baton Rouge got his start as a state senator. He then went from there to become the congressman from the 6th District. He has a base, so I consider him the most viable candidate.”

Pinsonat also noted there were two other Republicans, State Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, and Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel.

“There’s some numbers that indicate things may not go so well for Mary Landrieu in 2014,” said Cross. “White Democrats in Louisiana are in short supply. Over the last six years, the number of white Democrats has dropped from over 700,000 down to a minority. The Democratic Party now has a majority of African Americans; white registration numbers are plummeting. It’s unclear if Mary Landrieu can put together a majority of the state, given, particularly,  her most crucial vote for Obamacare, which is going to be the signal issue.”

The panel also addressed topics that college-aged journalists should be keeping an eye on in the upcoming years and gave advice on how to get those stories. Cross said he believed the steady advance of same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana would be two of the most pressing matters.

“Ten years ago, if you had told me we’d be in this position, I would’ve asked if you were smoking some of that marijuana,” he joked. “Both of these issues have come out of nowhere like “Gang Busters,” and they’re sweeping the country.”

Robinson advised the students not to stay in their newsrooms, but to get out in the world and be where the story is. He also noted the importance of familiarizing with potential stories by calling and speaking with candidates, their handlers and even their chauffeurs.

“Make friends with these people because it’s all about what?” he asked. “Human contact. Relationships. That’s how information is gathered. Don’t be a wallflower. The question is, how curious are you, and how far are you willing to go to satiate that curiosity?”

The panelists also warned the young journalists not take it easy on politicians.

“Every American is counting on members of the press to ask those tough questions and hold those people’s feet to the fire,” said Cross. “Things that politicians say are taken at face value. Anytime a politician opens his mouth, he’s lying. Politicians don’t get elected for telling the truth; they get elected for telling the truth as it appeals to a certain part of the electorate.”

Robinson agreed in a rousing call to action that received applause from the audience.

“When I started out, politicians were open game anytime for any question anywhere,” he said. “You didn’t have to alert them you were coming. They worked for us! What’s this crap, ‘You gotta make an appointment?’ No! We are the Fourth Estate. Our job is to inform the public.

“I think we’re too nice to them,” Robinson continued. “My God! We get these press releases and then we mouth what they say as if we’re conduits for their propaganda. I see us today as a bunch of wusses. All this harangue about Snowden; he was doing what he was supposed to: shining a light where it needed to be shined. And that’s what you all should be doing as members of the press.”